Deadly Premonition has been out for sometime in the US, but I and my contemporaries in Europe have only been offered the Deadly Premonition experience since last October. A two month old game may seem oddly irrelevant to still justify a review but, as I looked back on my gaming experiences of the year, I realised that Deadly Premonition was a game in much need of a new critical opinion. For those who have heard of the title before, you will be well aware of its polarised critical reception. There were those who offered the lowest scores imaginable and those who even went as far to award it a perfect rating, yet there is often too much of a whiff of irony in these scores. Deadly Premonition is not a beautiful mess or anything of the sort. I am arguing that there is nothing messy about the game and that it is worth a high score in earnest, based on its own merits.
Deadly Premonition is an open world survival horror game (my interest was already peaked by this point) placing you in the shoes of FBI special agent Francis York Morgan as he arrives in the small American town of Greenvale to investigate a bizarre series of murders. He soon discovers there is something not right within the town and sets out to catch the mysterious Raincoat killer with his sidekick and split personality Zach.
Right from the word go we are presented with a insightful conversation between our protagonist and an unknown individual on the end of the phone, in which they discuss the sadistic nature of psychological interdependency between the cartoon cat and mouse duo of Tom and Jerry. This immediately alerts us to the bizarre wit and humour employed within the game, yet it is also very telling of the character of York. Many have seen the comical element of Deadly Premonition as coming from acute design flaws and clunky translations, but from the sharp writing and wit that pervades the games script it is hard to understand this reading of the game. Deadly Premonition is often a comical game, but this is because it’s designed to be.
The humour of Deadly Premonition is used to engender the cast of characters to the player, but anyone who has played past the first few hours of the game will know that it is a horror game through and through. The degree of emotional attachment the player is made to feel for the cast of characters in the game sets up some truly horrific and affecting scenes later on, as terrible things befall the inhabitants of the town at the hands of the aptly named Raincoat killer. As far as antagonists go, the Raincoat killer is easily one of the more memorable and fear inducing enemies I’ve seen in a game since Pyramid head or Nemesis despite the obvious horror clichés he adheres to. His place in the game is also well juxtaposed against the strong protagonist that is York. He is one of the more intriguing and astute characters I’ve had the pleasure of playing, and he is well written to the point of being capable of both light hearted comedy and extreme emotion as the plot calls for it. The mechanics of Zach, his alternate personality, are also intriguing from a narrative perspective as they also allows York to defer to the player when choices are required by the game. SWERY, director of Access games and the mind behind Deadly Premonition, corroborated this statement in an interview when he stated that “The relationship between Zach and York is actually a very important relationship that ties the player holding the controller to the character inside the TV.” Whilst I usually like to divorce games form their developers and review them on their own merits, I feel SWERY’s discussions about Deadly Premonition are important. The guy clearly knows what he’s talking about if you read any of his interviews regarding game design, and it troubles any claims of Deadly Premonition being a ‘fantastic mistake’ when you keep this in mind.
Though it may have some pacing issues, the story to Deadly Premonition is water tight, and is one of the more engaging tales I think I’ve ever experienced within gaming. Heavy Rain is a fantastic example of ‘storytelling’ in the medium and whilst well written, the plot itself resembles a typical late night thriller; a Se7en homage or a ‘PG’ saw. Whilst other games possess stories that are praised for being good ‘for a game,’ Deadly Premonition possesses a plot that is just good by the standards of any medium.
It may be unfair though to criticise Heavy Rain as being derivative when Deadly Premonition wears its influences so clearly on its sleeve. Yet, it almost excuses itself through how clearly the references to 80s horror films place it within the history of B-Movies. The fact that York constantly alludes to self aware horror comedies, such as Attack of the Killer Tomatoes and American Werewolf in London, also helps to further the notion that the odd style and atmosphere of the game is more self aware and intentional than some would give it credit for. It also carves itself an odd niche within gaming as, regardless of the influence of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, the brand of surreal horror it sports has seldom been seen in any medium as of late, let alone video games. We are well catered for in the psychological horror camp by the Silent Hill series or the more recent Condemned titles and there are more than enough “look out behind you!” and gory types of horror games, but Deadly Premonition offers a blend of scares that gaming often fails to touch on.
As much as the story and character elements of Deadly Premonition are impressive, it’s a shame that there are a few gameplay blemishes. There are certainly some odd design choices here and there, though they usually have their place. Sure the open world sections are a bit sparse and repetitive, but you always get the feeling of the world and its characters existing around you as a result of this. Whilst the driving sections seem a little tedious on occasion, they also help to solidify the rural nature of Greenvale and help immerse you in the world of Deadly Premonition. These aspects are still weaknesses all the same, yet there is at least a method to the madness. Make no mistake that you are sometimes required to work through the bad stuff to get to the good in Deadly Premonition, but there is no doubt that the extra work required to enjoy the game is well worth it.
There is one aspect of the game that, sadly, can not be excused in Deadly Premonition and it would be neglectful of me to overlook this significant flaw. The combat is absolute tripe. There is no way around it. It starts off okay and the general engine is reminiscent enough of Resident Evil 4 not to be too shambolic, yet as you progress the enemies’ health increases to the point where whole chunks of hours can be lost in repetitive and poorly balanced gunplay. This is the part of the game that nearly all critics have unanimously panned outright yet it is, in a sense, our fault as an industry that it exists: In an interview with gamecritics.com SWERY stated that “The combat was added after we received advice from our publisher that Western audiences would have difficulty accepting a main character who didn’t fire a gun.”. I’m not sure to what extent it is actually our fault as an audience, or if it is merely a generalisation about western desires on the part of the publishers, but most stereotypes have to start somewhere. Our most successful games certainly don’t help dispel the idea that we are only interested in explosions, firearms and the occasional nipple. If it weren’t for our supposed love of all things that go “boom,” Deadly Premonition could be missing its greatest vice and that score at the top of the page would be a big fat ten.
For all the hating I’ve been doing on the gameplay in Deadly Premonition, it is important to note the things it does well in this department as well. Though it isn’t all sunshine and rainbows, there is a huge amount of variety in the gameplay that is on offer. From chase scenes, to exploration, to driving, to fetch quests, to puzzle solving Deadly Premonition is a roller coaster ride that really offers you some bang for your buck. There are also some tense scenes that see you attempting to evade the Raincoat killer and these sections are infinitely improved by an intriguing directorial technique where the screen splits to depict, both the usual game camera and a first person view of what the killer sees. I found these to be some of the more tense moments I’ve experienced in gaming in a while, yet no other critics seem to have given this aspect the attention it deserves. By contrast, fans and critics alike were wowed when Hideo Kojima employed this same technique in Metal Gear Solid 4. Sure, you might say, people aren’t impressed by the use of the camera in Deadly Premonition, having already seen it in MGS4, yet this technique was used in Quantic Dream’s Fahrenheit (or Indigo Prophecy for those in the US) many years before MGS4 was released; so it seems unfair to discount this due to a lack of originality.
Another aspect of the game that has been unfairly lambasted is the use of audio that, once more, is deliberately employed for effect and is not the mistake that some fans and critics assume it to be. Though the background music occasionally repeats and can be inappropriate, it is able to be linked to specific emotions through its recurring nature, to the point where the tunes act as leitmotifs for feelings rather than places. When happy music plays during an apparently sad scene, it is often the game preparing some humorous wit or dialogue rather than a poorly chosen track. What seems even more unreasonable is the claim that the voice acting is of a poor quality. The general spoken dialogue of Deadly Premonition is seen as clunky and unprofessional, yet Harold Pinter adopts the same technique to create dramatic tension in his works and he is often seen as one of the great modern playwrights. Deadly Premonition employs some instances of stilted dialogue to imply the bizarre nature of the inhabitants of Greenvale and their lack of understanding about each other. Likewise. the wooden voice acting is purposefully crafted during the game’s opening as York begins the game as a cold, clinical and very unemotional character. As the story progresses and the more emotive events take place the wooden voice acting develops into some very powerful stuff. Any critic who chides the voice acting in Deadly Premonition clearly hasn’t done enough testing.
The other technical aspect that has come under fire is the visual presentation of Deadly Premonition. Generally speaking the graphics are pretty poor and are reminiscent of last decade’s visuals. One of the reasons behind this is the delayed development cycle of the game. Considering it was originally developed for PS2, you would be foolish to assume that Deadly Premonition would rival our modern blockbuster titles graphically. It is also one of the areas that just needs to be overcome and forgotten about in favour of the game’s rich story and characters. Thankfully, the powerful and memorable symbolism of Deadly Premonition still shines through in spite of the visuals and not because of them.
Deadly Premonition has some flaws that prevent it from reinventing the horror genre in the way that it almost deserves to. In spite of this, it is clearly still worthy of your attention and praise, but not in the ironic way of it being “so bad it’s good.” Deadly Premonition is comparable to the films of Sam Raimi (minus the Spiderman’s) or David Lynch, whereas other bigger selling action titles often have more in common with Michael Bay’s action flicks. The more critical consumer base of the film industry unveils the Michael Bay films as the fun outing that they are, and proceeds to appreciate the Lynch or Raimi films equally for their depth, wit and intrigue if not their production values. Us gamers generally don’t do this. Gaming, and console gaming in particular, has become more culturally acceptable and respected as of late, but a large chip still resides on the medium’s shoulder. The lingering drive to be taken seriously means that a game that looks and plays in a clunky and low-budget a fashion, like Deadly Premonition, can’t be considered a serious work, but we must accept that it can be. The plot and script of the game in question are solid, even if some of the shooting mechanics aren’t and I’d rather more games were like this. As this is a game, gameplay is viewed as paramount but, without a good story or something similar driving you, you’ll find your interest in flashy mechanics waning very quickly. I’ve paid my £40 for a blockbuster action title and had a good weekend with it, but the measly £10 that funded my time with Deadly Premonition has offered me a far more memorable experience. This is usually the point in my reviews where I tell you to get the game but only if you are also a fan of a similar series or genre of games. This is not the case with Deadly Premonition. The title offers a solid twenty hours of creative and ingenious action and subtle sophistication and, at the very low retail price, I would honestly recommend Deadly Premonition to anyone. It is one of my favourite games of 2010 and, provided you give it the patience it deserves, I’m sure you would feel the same way too.
This game was reviewed on the PC.
One of the more engaging stories in gaming, A truly memorable cast of characters, Hugely ambitious, Large variety in set pieces, Unusual but fantastic use of audio, Vast amount of content, Very moderately priced
Laborious combat sections, Occasional balancing issues, Slightly weak visuals
Possibly one of the more exciting games of 2010, I return to Deadly Premonition some months after its western release to reflect on the game and hopefully debunk the myth that Deadly Premonition is “so bad it's good”